The first overall pick in the NFL draft comes with a lot of hope and pressure. Some of the choices have completely turned the fortunes of a franchise, while others sank them further down the abyss. Below is the ranking of the first overall pick, post-merger, from best to worst. Since the merger there’s been 48 1st overall picks with Tampa about two weeks away from selecting the 49th. Where will that player eventually fall on this list?
1. Peyton Manning (QB) Tennessee, draft by Indianapolis Colts in 1998
Without a doubt the biggest home run pick in NFL history. The only slight surprise is that he’s “only” won one Super Bowl, but he’s been Super Bowl MVP, a 14 time Pro Bowler and a 5 time MVP. Oh, and he owns pretty much every career passing record there is. He will be without a doubt a first ballot Hall of Famer.
2. John Elway (QB) Stanford, drafted by Baltimore Colts in 1983
He’s been to the Pro Bowl 9 times, he’s a 2 time Super Bowl Champ, he’s been a Super Bowl MVP, he was the league MVP in 1987 and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Elway refused to play for the Colts and was quickly traded to the Broncos just after being drafted, though, so picking him ultimately benefited someone else.
3. Bruce Smith (DE) Virginia Tech, drafted by Buffalo Bills in 1985
Smith is one of the best defensive players in NFL history. He’s been to the Pro Bowl 11 times and he’s a member of the Hall of Fame. He’s the all time leader in sacks with 200 career and it doesn’t look like he’ll be caught anytime soon.
4. Troy Aikman (QB) UCLA, drafted by Dallas Cowboys in 1989
His career was cut a bit short due to concussions but he still managed to make 6 Pro Bowls, win 3 Super Bowls during the Cowboys’ glory era, win a Super Bowl MVP, and get elected to the Hall of Fame.
5. Terry Bradshaw (QB) Louisiana Tech, drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970
Bradshaw never piled up stats like some of the guys listed above him but he was a winner. He is in the Hall of Fame thanks to leading his team to 4 Super Bowl titles, 2 Super Bowl MVPs, a league MVP award in 1978 and 3 Pro Bowls. No one played better in big games.
6. Orlando Pace (T) Ohio State, drafted by St. Louis Rams in 1997
Injuries later in his career cut his time a litte short, otherwise he may have been viewed as one of the best tackles ever to play the game. He still won a Super Bowl and was elected to the Pro Bowl 7 times.
7. O. J. Simpson (RB) USC, drafted by Buffalo Bills in 1969 – 6 Pro Bowls, Hall of Fame, MVP in 1973
As much as his off the field problems have been well documented, you can’t argue with his deserved Hall of Fame status. He went to 6 Pro Bowls and was elected MVP in 1973.
8. Earl Campbell (RB) Texas, drafted by Houston Oilers in 1978
Earl Campbell started his career fast, winning MVP in 1979 after being named rookie of the year in 1978. He finished with 5 Pro Bowls and is in the Hall of Fame.
9. Ron Yary (T) USC, drafted by Minnesota Vikings in 1968
The 7 time Pro Bowler is in the Hall of Fame thanks to his dominance in the trenches at a time when physical line play came at a premium.
10. Eli Manning (QB) Ole Miss, drafted by San Diego Chargers in 2004
He’s been a little up and down in his career but you can’t argue against his 2 Super Bowl titles and 2 Super Bowl MVPs. He gets hot at the right time. He’s also been to 3 Pro Bowls. Like Elway he refused to play for the team that drafted him and was immediately traded.
11. Lee Roy Selmon (DE) Oklahoma, drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976
He came in an era before sacks counted (started in ’82) but still made the Pro Bowl 6 times and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
12. Andrew Luck (QB) Stanford, drafted by Indianapolis Colts in 2012
He’s already been to the Pro Bowl 3 times in 3 seasons. He will continue to move up this list as time goes on. Peyton Manning was an impossible person to replace and so far Luck has done it better than anyone could.
13. Drew Bledsoe (QB) Washington State, drafted by New England Patriots in 1993
Bledsoe was a 4 time Pro Bowler and he led the Patriots to one Super Bowl. He did also below to a Super Bowl champion team, and while Tom Brady was the quarterback in that game, Bledsoe played an instrumental part with key spot duty in the playoffs.
14. Keyshawn Johnson (WR) USC, drafted by New York Jets in 1996 – 3x Pro Bowl, SB Champ
Johnson combined size and speed to pave the way for how so many prototype receivers are built these days. He went to 3 Pro Bowls and was a Super Bowl champion, though he was sometimes viewed as a distraction in the locker room.
15. Irving Fryar (WR) Nebraska, drafted by New England Patriots in 1984
He probably wasn’t worthy of being selected 1st overall when it was all said and done, but Fryar’s career is pretty underrated. He made 5 Pro Bowls and was still very productive.
16. Ed Jones (DE) Tennessee State, drafted by Dallas Cowboys in 1974
At 6’9″ he was nicknamed “Too Tall”. He finished his career with a Super Bowl title and 3 trips to the Pro Bowl.
17. George Rogers (RB) South Carolina, drafted by New Orleans Saints 1981
Rogers started very fast but injuries stunted his development. He did make the Pro Bowl twice, his first two years in the league, and he was named rookie of the year. He would eventually win a Super Bowl with the Redskins.
18. Bill Sims (RB) Oklahoma, drafted by Detroit Lions in 1980
He might not be the Lions running back from Oklahoma (State) that everyone remembers, but he was good in his own right with 3 Pro Bowls and a rookie of the year label.
19. Mario Williams (DE) N. C. State, drafted by Houston Texans in 2006
His career is still ongoing and he could move up this list but given the massive contracts he’s been able to receive, 3 Pro Bowls feels light.
20. Jake Long (T) Michigan, drafted by Miami Dolphins in 2008
He’s made 4 Pro Bowls and prior to injury he was one of the best in the league.
21. Jim Plunkett (QB) Stanford, drafted by New England Patriots in 1971
He was a 2 time Super Bowl Champion and a Super Bowl MVP. He was a huge bust for the Patriots and never put up great stats, but late in his career he was able to find success with the Raiders.
22. Michael Vick (QB) Virginia Tech, drafted by Atlanta Falcons in 2001
He took the league by storm with his unique skillset and ability. He did make it to 4 Pro Bowls and he was a fantastic comeback story, but one is left to wonder what his career would have been without the dog fighting ring that landed him in prison for almost two years.
23. Carson Palmer (QB) USC, drafted by Cincinnati Bengals in 2003
He’s had an up and down career. He has made it to 2 Pro Bowls and bounced back nicely from career threatening injuries, but never delivered the type of success you hope for out of the 1st pick.
24. Bubba Smith (DE) Michigan State, drafted by Baltimore Colts in 1967
He made 2 Pro Bowls and was a 1 time Super Bowl champ.
25. Cam Newton (QB) Auburn, drafted by Carolina Panthers in 2011
He was named rookie of the year and has been to 2 Pro Bowls. He’s still a work in progress but more success will move him up this list if he can shake the sometimes inconsistent play that plagues him.
26. Russell Maryland (DT) Miami, FL., drafted by Dallas Cowboys in 1991
He had the fortune of playing on some great teams that meant 3 Super Bowl titles. He didn’t live up to his draft status, but he was a good player that made it to one Pro Bowl.
27. Matt Stafford (QB) Georgia, drafted by Detroit Lions in 2009
He puts up the statistics, there’s no doubt about it. But with a player like Megatron in his arsenal the lack of success is puzzling. He’s been to 1 Pro Bowl. He still has the potential to be one of the best on this list but he needs to start winning big games soon.
28. Bo Jackson (RB) Auburn, drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986
At his best he is without question one of the most dominant players on this entire list. Unfortunately injuries and baseball prevented him from realizing his full potential. He only made one Pro Bowl.
29. Alex Smith (QB) Utah, drafted by San Francisco 49ers in 2005
He’s been to 1 Pro Bowl thanks to Jim Harbaugh reviving his career. Prior to that 49er hire, Smith was on the fast track to being one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history.
30. Dan Wilkinson (DT) Ohio State, drafted by Cincinnati Bengals in 1994
He had a decent career but locker room issues always cast a negative shadow over him.
31. Steve Bartkowski (QB) California, drafted by Atlanta Falcons in 1975
He did make 2 Pro Bowls but was otherwise disappointing and unspectacular. He finished a mediocre 59-68 as a starter.
32. John Matuszak (DE) Tampa, drafted by Houston Oilers in 1973
The 2 time Super Bowl champ sadly died of a drug overdose in 1989. His drug use and partying overshadowed his career.
33. Vinny Testaverde (QB) Miami, drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987
He did make one Pro Bowl and had a very long career but is 4th in interceptions in NFL history. He was widely viewed as a bust, highlighted by his second season in Tampa where he threw for 13 touchdowns and 35 interceptions.
34. Jeff George (QB) Illinois, drafted by Indianapolis Colts in 1990
Most forget he carved out a 15 year career, but he was wildly inconsistent. George was a bust and not worthy of his selection, but he did have a few good seasons as a starter in Atlanta, Oakland and Minnesota. He finished 46-78 overall as a starter.
35. Kenneth Sims (DE) Texas, drafted by New England Patriots in 1982
Sims had a decent career 8 year career but never came close to living up to his draft status. He struggled with durability as injuries seem to cut many of his seasons short.
36. Eric Fisher (T) Central Michigan, drafted by Kansas City Chiefs in 2013
After a very poor rookie campaign, Fisher seems to be on the right track to becoming a decent pro. He’ll need to build off last season, though, as early it seemed like he could end up a disaster pick.
37. Ricky Bell (RB) USC, drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977
Bell retired early and died tragically of a rare disease. A very sad development especially when you consider his undeniable talent and the early promise he showed on the field.
38. Tom Cousineau (LB) Ohio State, drafted by Buffalo Bills in 1979
He ditched an opportunity to play in the NFL as a rookie for the CFL. Somehow he made more money in Canada and was a superstar over there. He eventually came back to the NFL but didn’t have nearly the same success. The Bills can at least find solace in the fact that upon his return they traded him for a pick which eventually became Jim Kelly.
39. Sam Bradford (QB) Oklahoma, drafted by St. Louis Rams in 2010
Injury after injury after injury. We’ll never know how good he could have been. Still has a chance to move up this list, though.
40. Walt Patulski (DE) Notre Dame, drated by Buffalo Bills in 1972
Disappointing career that was not awful, but just ok. For where he was drafted he was a clear bust.
41. Aundray Bruce (OLB) Auburn, drafted by Atlanta Falcons in 1988
He was a disaster for the Falcons but slightly better when he went to the Raiders. Did not have a noteworthy career.
42. David Carr (QB) Fresno State, drafted by Houston Texans in 2002
He was a very poor starter and a career backup in the league. He did win a Super Bowl as a backup, though.
43. Tim Couch (QB) Kentucky, drafted by Cleveland Browns in 1999
He lasted just 5 years in the NFL and played very poorly. After his incredibly successful college career and prototypical size this was a major disappointment.
44. Courtney Brown (DE) Penn State, drafted by Cleveland Browns in 2000
Unbelievably he was drafted the year after Couch for the Browns and was even worse. He also lasted just 5 years and never had more than 6 sacks in a season.
45. Steve Emtman (DE) Washington, drafted by Indianapolis Colts in 1991
The write up for Sam Bradford applies to Emtman too. The difference is he never did anything the little time he was on the field, either.
46. Ki-Jana Carter (RB) Penn State, drafted by Cincinnati Bengals in 1995
Another injury plagued player that just could never get on the field.
47. Jadeveon Clowney (OLB) South Carolina by Houston Texans in 2014
It’s too early to to tell but so far his injury history puts him in the same category as the few players listed above him.
48. JaMarcus Russell (QB) LSU by Oakland Raiders in 2007
Besides maybe Ryan Leaf, Russell has to be viewed as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. He’s a major reason why rookie contracts were changed.